Cinophile: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

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The movie world loves the action hero, a man (and increasingly woman) who is highly competent, shows no fear and is able to get themselves out of any situation, no matter how hairy. Whether it’s Jason Bourne or Jason Statham, they are there (to quote another John Carpenter movie) to kick ass and chew bubblegum.

Well, not in this John Carpenter movie. No doubt our hero, Jack Burton, checks at least one of the above boxes. He certainly has no fear. But is he competent? That’s hard to tell. And can he get himself out of any situation? Well, Jack is certainly handy and does end up saving the day. But he had a lot of help…

Big Trouble in Little China was one of John Carpenter’s biggest studio movies, but also the one that nearly killed his career. It soured him off studios for quite a while and would be the near end of his working relationship with Kurt Russell. Not that the two had a falling out, but this film left some scars on both men’s careers. That is a pity, because Big Trouble quickly rose to cult fame. It was simply a completely misunderstood film.

The movie premise is what caused the most problems: it’s the anti action-star experience. Russell’s Burton is less Bruce Willis and more Bruce Campbell. He’s cocky, over-confident and usually not much help. Not that Burton is a coward – he’s always up for the fight, just also always horribly outmatched. Thankfully a few friends are there to help him out…

It starts with Burton, a truck driver, delivering a load of pigs to a market in San Francisco. After he wins a bet against a local friend, the pair go to the nearby Chinatown district to collect the money. They first stop to collect the friend’s fiancee at the airport, but she is kidnapped by a local gang. While pursuing the kidnappers, Burton and his friend Wang Chi get caught in a gang war that quickly develops into something far bigger involving the Chinese underworld and demigods.

Big Trouble has been called a satire of action tropes – and it’s clear to see why. The normally hapless sidekicks, damsel in distress and other side players are very effective. In contrast, the main action guy’s bravado is always matched with his ineptness. He’d have died a long time ago if he wasn’t simply such a lucky bastard. This is one of the film’s biggest appeal – the way it reverses traditional action stereotypes.

Yet it remains a Carpenter film, which means that not everyone will enjoy the subtle B-movie treatment he likes to give his films. Like its director, this is an iconoclastic piece of work, completely misunderstood and only recognised long after its time. Its main rival of the moment, The Eddie Murphy-starring Golden Child, was a bigger hit but has since disappeared into the cracks of pop culture. Yet Big Trouble in Little China still gets a lot of love, because where else can you find bumbling truckers fight Mortal Kombat‘s Raiden – without actually being any good at it?

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The original plot for Big Trouble in Little China was set as a Western, but subsequent rewrites placed it in a modern environment. In fact, the changes were extensive enough that it eventually spurred pressure by the Writers Guild of America to add the two original screenplay writers to the credits.
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Jackie Chan was approached by Carpenter for the role of Wang Chi, but he declined. The studio recommended Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson for the role of Jack Burton. But Carpenter opted for Kurt Russell, their fourth movie working together.
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This was John Carpenter’s last studio-backed film in the Eighties, thanks to constant interference by executives. An example of this was the opening scene in the lawyer’s office – demanded by the studio to make the lead seem more heroic. Carpenter’s subsequent two films, They Live and Prince of Darkness, were made independently.
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Despite performing incredibly well at test screenings, Big Trouble in Little China was a bomb, making back just over half of its $20 million budget. The film’s creators blamed poor marketing by the studio. The release of the much-hyped Aliens a few weeks later may have also contributed to its demise.

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: June 8, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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